PART ONE: INTRODUCTION
What is an essay?
An essay is a relatively short piece of writing on a particular topic. However, the word essay also means attempt or try. An essay is, therefore, a short piece written by someone attempting to explore a topic or answer a question.
Why bother writing an essay?
Most of the time, students write essays only because they are required to do so by a classroom instructor. Thus, students come to believe that essays are important primarily to demonstrate their knowledge to a teacher or professor. This is simply, and dangerously, wrong (even though such writing for demonstration may be practically necessary).
The primary reason to write an essay is so that the writer can formulate and organize an informed, coherent and sophisticated set of ideas about something important.
Why is it important to bother with developing sophisticated ideas, in turn? It’s because there is no difference between doing so and thinking, for starters. It is important to think because action based on thinking is likely to be far less painful and more productive than action based upon ignorance. So, if you want to have a life characterized by competence, productivity, security, originality and engagement rather than one that is nasty, brutish and short, you need to think carefully about important issues. There is no better way to do so than to write. This is because writing extends your memory, facilitates editing and clarifies your thinking.
You can write down more than you can easily remember, so that your capacity to consider a number of ideas at the same time is broadened. Furthermore, once those ideas are written down, you can move them around and change them, word by word, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph. You can also reject ideas that appear substandard, after you consider them more carefully. If you reject substandard ideas, then all that you will have left will be good ideas. You can keep those, and use them. Then you will have good, original ideas at your fingertips, and you will be able to organize and communicate them.
Consider your success over the course of a lifetime. Here is something to think about: the person who can formulate and communicate the best argument almost always wins. If you want a job, you have to make a case for yourself. If you want a raise, you have to convince someone that you deserve it. If you are trying to convince someone of the validity of your idea, you have to debate its merits successfully, particularly if there are others with other competing ideas.
If you sharpen your capacity to think and to communicate as a consequence of writing, you are better armed. The pen is mightier than the sword, as the saying goes. This is no cheap cliché. Ideas change the world, particularly when they are written. The Romans built buildings, and the Romans and the buildings are both gone. The Jews wrote a book, and they are still here, and so is the book. So it turns out that words may well last longer than stone, and have more impact than whole empires.
If you learn to write and to edit, you will also be able to tell the difference between good ideas, intelligently presented, and bad ideas put forth by murky and unskilled thinkers. That means that you will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff (look it up). Then you can be properly influenced by profound and solid ideas instead of falling prey to foolish fads and whims and ideologies, which can range in their danger from trivial to mortal.
Those who can think and communicate are simply more powerful than those who cannot, and powerful in the good way, the way that means “able to do a wide range of things competently and efficiently.” Furthermore, the further up the ladder of competence you climb, with your well-formulated thoughts, the more important thinking and communicating become. At the very top of the most complex hierarchies (law, medicine, academia, business, theology, politics) nothing is more necessary and valuable. If you can think and communicate, you can also defend yourself, and your friends and family, when that becomes necessary, and it will become necessary at various points in your life.
Finally, it is useful to note that your mind is organized verbally, at the highest and most abstract levels. Thus, if you learn to think, through writing, then you will develop a well-organized, efficient mind — and one that is well-founded and certain. This also means that you will be healthier, mentally and physically, as lack of clarity and ignorance means unnecessary stress. Unnecessary stress makes your body react more to what could otherwise be treated as trivial affairs. This makes for excess energy expenditure, and more rapid aging (along with all the negative health-related consequences of aging).
So, unless you want to stay an ignorant, unhealthy lightweight, learn to write (and to think and communicate). Otherwise those who can will ride roughshod over you and push you out of the way. Your life will be harder, at the bottom of the dominance hierarchies that you will inevitably inhabit, and you will get old fast.
Don’t ever underestimate the power of words. Without them, we would still be living in trees. So when you are writing an essay, you are harnessing the full might of culture to your life. That is why you write an essay (even if it has been assigned). Forget that, and you are doing something stupid, trivial and dull. Remember it, and you are conquering the unknown.
A note on technology
If you are a student, or anyone else who is going to do a lot of writing, then you should provide yourself with the right technology, especially now, when it is virtually costless to do so. Obviously, you need a computer. It doesn’t have to be that good, although a digital hard drive is a good investment for speed. Less obviously, you need two screens, one set up beside the other. They don’t have to be bigger than 19” diagonal. Even 17” monitors will do well. High resolution is better. You need the two screens so that you can present your reference material on one screen, and your essay (or even two versions of your essay, side by side) on the other.
Having this extra visual real estate really matters. It will make you less cramped and more efficient. A good keyboard (such as the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic keyboard) is also an excellent investment. Standard keyboards will hurt your hands if you use them continually, and the less said about a notebook keyboard the better. Use a good mouse, as well, and not a touchpad, which requires too much finicky movement for someone who is really working. Set up the keyboards so you are looking directly at their centers when you are sitting up straight. Use a decent chair, and sit so that your feet can rest comfortably on the floor when your knees are bent 90 degrees.
These are not trivial issues. You may spend hours working on your writing, so you have to set up a workspace that will not annoy you, or you will have just one more good reason to avoid your tasks and assignments.
A note on use of time
People’s brains function better in the morning. Get up. Eat something. You are much smarter and more resilient after you have slept properly and ate. There is plenty of solid research demonstrating this. Coffee alone is counter-productive. Have some protein and some fat. Make a smoothie with fruit and real yogurt. Go out and buy a cheap breakfast, if necessary. Eat by whatever means necessary. Prepare to spend between 90 minutes and three hours writing. However, even 15 minutes can be useful, particularly if you do it every day.
Do not wait for a big chunk of free time to start. You will never get big chunks of free time ever in your life, so don’t make your success dependent on their non-existent. The most effective writers write every day, at least a bit.
Realize that when you first sit down to write, your mind will rebel. It is full of other ideas, all of which will fight to dominate. You could be looking at Facebook, or Youtube, or watching or reading online porn, or cleaning the dust bunnies from under your bed, or rearranging your obsolete CD collection, or texting an old flame, or reading a book for another course, or getting the groceries you need, or doing the laundry, or having a nap, or going for a walk (because you need the exercise), or phoning a friend or a parent — the list is endless. Each part of your mind that is concerned with such things will make its wants known, and attempt to distract you. Such pesky demons can be squelched, however, with patience. If you refuse to be tempted for fifteen minutes (25 on a really bad day) you will find that the clamor in your mind will settle down and you will be able to concentrate on writing.
If you do this day after day, you will find that the power of such temptations do not reduce, but the duration of their attempts to distract you will decrease. You will also find that even on a day where concentration is very difficult, you will still be able to do some productive writing if you stick it out.
Don’t kid yourself into thinking you will write for six hours, either. Three is a maximum, especially if you want to sustain it day after day. Don’t wait too late to start your writing, so you don’t have to cram insanely, but give yourself a break after a good period of sustained concentration. Three productive hours are way better than ten hours of self-deceptive non-productivity, even in the library.